America has a corruption problem. And it's not just Trump.
For some time now I've been mulling how one might concisely summarize President Trump's sprawling scandals around Russia and his various shady business practices. And that one word, I think, does the trick better than any other: corruption.
And yet, America's corruption problem is far bigger than Donald J. Trump.
Trump is almost certainly already the most corrupt president in American history. Previous presidents notorious for corruption, like Warren G. Harding, merely failed to notice lawbreaking happening on their watch — indeed, the infamous Teapot Dome scandal was not even discovered until after Harding had died. Trump, in addition to a Nixon-style abuse of power to quash the Russia investigation, is openly using the presidency to enrich himself and his family. Some of it is fairly small-bore — like how he charges the Secret Service to use his own golf carts — but much is not.
No president has ever continued to operate a huge business empire while in office, as Trump is doing. The Atlantic counts up 44 separate large potential conflicts of interest looming as a result — and that summary is almost certainly an underestimate, because Trump still refuses to release his tax returns as he promised he would do.
The Constitution straightforwardly prohibits taking gifts, offices, or titles from any foreign power (without the consent of Congress). After all, you don't want a stooge of a foreign power in the highest office in the land. But Trump has no shame whatsoever. In fact, it's perfectly in keeping with his long career of blatantly violating the law, getting caught, and then paying a wrist-slap fine. As Matt Yglesias writes at Vox:
[Trump] is entirely emblematic of America's post-Reagan treatment of business regulation. What a wealthy and powerful person faced with a legal impediment to moneymaking is supposed to do is work with a lawyer to devise clever means of subverting the purpose of the law. If you end up getting caught, the attempted subversion will be construed as a mitigating (it's a gray area!) rather than aggravating factor. Your punishment will probably be light and will certainly not involve anything more than money. [Vox]
President Trump is very clearly corrupt. But America's corruption problem is also very clearly much bigger than Trump.
Punishment of white-collar and elite crime has been declining for decades. Whereas over 1,000 people were convicted of major felonies as a result of the savings and loan collapse in the 1980s, only a couple wrongdoers were even prosecuted as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. That despite the fact that journalists and private citizens — with no subpoena power — easily found the crisis was underpinned in part by mortgage fraud on an industrial scale. The best that could be mustered for that transgression and many other crimes — including money laundering for drug cartels and terrorists, tax evasion, and market rigging — were minor fines that often were paid by shareholders, not the culprits.
Why? Because, as then-Attorney General Eric Holder said in 2013, many financial businesses have become so big that it's "difficult for us to prosecute them." A somewhat more compelling reason can be found in Holder's post-government service career: He went straight back to the corporate law firm Covington & Burling, where they had literally been saving his office for him.
President George W. Bush was arguably tougher on Wall Street than President Obama was. At least a few bigshots were sentenced to prison as a result of the Enron crime spree, and Arthur Andersen, a giant accounting firm, was driven into bankruptcy for helping cook the books. In retrospect, it seems that was the last gasp of the dying rule of law when it came to white-collar crime.
Another factor that exacerbates this problem is the psychotic viciousness of the American criminal justice system towards people who aren't members of the elite. If you're a poor person who commits some minor crime, you can expect the prosecutor to try to force a guilty plea by keeping you in jail with a massive bail requirement, or by stacking up enormous charges to threaten you with decades in prison. But if you're former CIA boss David Petraeus and you leak code word-classified documents to your mistress, you can expect a kid-glove plea bargain for a little probation.
All this badly erodes the public confidence in America's national institutions. If it seems like the game is rigged, that's because it is.
Ironically, Trump got no small political bump from railing against the "corrupt political establishment." Democrats need to try the same strategy, only mean it this time. If and when they take control of Congress, they must investigate even if the trail of corruption leads to friends and party donors — as it almost certainly will. If they take the White House, they must start enforcing the laws against financial crimes and abuse of office once more.
A vigorous campaign against corruption slots in beautifully as half of a Democratic Party platform for 2018 (the other half being against TrumpCare and for Medicare for all). Yet Democrats must also admit that corruption goes far, far beyond Trump himself. He is just the avatar of a general tendency among the entire elite — of both political parties. To make a really strong campaign against corruption, Democrats must not only slam Trump's abysmal record, but also admit their record in this regard is less than stellar.
In other words, it's time to clean house.